Harper Lee’s estate sues over Broadway version of ‘Mockingbird’

Alexandra Alter and Michael Paulson
Harper Lee in 2007
Getty Images

One of the year's most anticipated Broadway plays — the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of Harper Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" — faces a legal challenge from Ms. Lee's estate, which is suing over Mr. Sorkin's version of the story.

In a complaint filed Tuesday in federal court in Alabama, the estate argued that Mr. Sorkin's adaptation deviates too much from the novel, and violates a contract, between Ms. Lee and the producers, which stipulates that the characters and plot must remain faithful to the spirit of the book.

A chief dispute in the complaint is the assertion that Mr. Sorkin's portrayal of the much beloved Atticus Finch, the crusading lawyer who represents a black man unjustly accused of rape, presents him as a man who begins the drama as a naïve apologist for the racial status quo, a depiction at odds with his purely heroic image in the novel.

In February, the lawsuit says, Tonja B. Carter, the lawyer Ms. Lee appointed to run her estate, met with Scott Rudin, a producer of the play, for one to two hours to express "serious concerns about the script."

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"At times, the conversation was heated," but the meeting ended without a resolution, the lawsuit said.

The contract the parties signed states that "the Play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters." The Rudin team is arguing it does not, and that, while the producers must listen to the estate's view, they are the final arbiters of whether the production is faithful to the novel.

"I can't and won't present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics: It wouldn't be of interest," Mr. Rudin said in an interview. "The world has changed since then."

The play, which is scheduled to begin previews Nov. 1 and to open Dec. 13 on Broadway, is a joint production of Mr. Rudin and Lincoln Center Theater.

A lawyer who filed the lawsuit for Ms. Lee's estate, Matthew H. Lembke, declined to comment.

There is a long history of writers and others who claim authorship bringing legal action against theatrical producers, although those disputes have typically been over credit, not content. Among recent examples were lawsuits over "Anastasia," "Jersey Boys," "Fela!" and "Rent" — none of which stopped the productions. Last year Mr. Rudin was sued by the University of the South, which owns the rights to plays by Tennessee Williams, over credit and royalties from last year's Broadway revival of "The Glass Menagerie."

Literary estates can also be quite aggressive in seeking to control various elements of theatrical productions. The estate of Samuel Beckett has been famously restrictive, and the estate of Edward Albee reserves the right to approve creative teams and casts for productions of his plays.

The "Mockingbird" adaptation is being directed by Bartlett Sher, who has extensive experience wrestling with authorial intent — this season he is directing a revival of "My Fair Lady," and he previously directed Broadway revivals of "Fiddler on the Roof," "The King and I" and "South Pacific."

The cast is led by Jeff Daniels, as Atticus, and includes Celia Keenan-Bolger as his daughter, Scout; Will Pullen as her brother, Jem; and Gideon Glick as their friend Dill. Casting for the role of Arthur (Boo) Radley has not yet been announced.

Mr. Rudin said he was surprised by the estate's criticism of Mr. Sorkin's depiction of Atticus because Ms. Carter had been instrumental in the 2015 publication of "Go Set a Watchman," an early draft of "Mockingbird" that depicted an aged Atticus as a racist and segregationist.

The lawsuit states that the play should not deviate from the depiction of Atticus in "Mockingbird," where he is presented as a defender of racial equality in a divided south. "Based on Ms. Lee's own father, a small-town Alabama lawyer who represented black defendants in a criminal trial, Atticus Finch is portrayed in the novel as a model of wisdom, integrity, and professionalism," the suit says.

Ms. Lee signed the contract authorizing the play in June 2015, eight months before she died at age 89. She received $100,000 for the production rights, as well as what Broadway experts described as a generous portion of the box office revenue and any net profit.

The dispute erupted last fall when Ms. Carter saw a draft of the script, and was alarmed by what she viewed as liberties taken with the source material. The suit cites an interview Mr. Sorkin did last fall where he described how Atticus evolves over the course of the play, in part through his interactions with the Finch family's black maid, Calpurnia, who has a much larger role in the drama. Ms. Carter was also troubled by the addition of two characters who do not appear in the book, and by what the complaint describes as changes to the characters of Atticus's children, Jem and Scout.

In the interview Mr. Sorkin gave New York Magazine about his adaptation, he described his reinterpretation of Atticus's moral evolution. "As far as Atticus and his virtue goes, this is a different take on 'Mockingbird' than Harper Lee's or Horton Foote's," he said. "He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play."

The move to assert more control over the play is perhaps a sign of how Ms. Carter views her role as a guardian of Ms. Lee's legacy. In her final years, Ms. Lee went to court to protect her intellectual property, and sued a museum in her hometown, Monroeville, in 2013, arguing that it had infringed on Ms. Lee's trademark by selling "Mockingbird" themed T-shirts and trinkets (the suit was settled in 2014).

Mr. Rudin alluded to that lawsuit in a statement that said the "estate has an unfortunate history of litigious behavior and of both filing and being the recipient of numerous lawsuits, and has been the subject of considerable controversy based on the perceptions surrounding its handling of the work of Harper Lee both before and after her death."

"This is, unfortunately," the statement continued, "simply another such lawsuit, the latest of many, and we believe that it is without merit. While we hope this gets resolved, if it does not, the suit will be vigorously defended."

The "Mockingbird" lawsuit was preceded by a series of letters between the parties as they debated the script. In one letter, dated March 5 and released by Mr. Rudin's office, Ms. Carter expressed concern that Atticus in the play is depicted as "rude and selfish" as well as "more confrontational and far less dignified."

"This Atticus," she wrote, "is more like an edgy sitcom dad in the 21st Century than the iconic Atticus of the novel."

She also objected to what she described as "massive alteration" to the characters of Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, to plot elements that she says vary from those in the book, and to the depiction of small-town Alabama in the 1930s.

Mr. Rudin's lawyer, Jonathan Zavin, responded four days later, defending the play, acknowledging that while it is "different from the novel," it "does not derogate or depart from the spirit of the novel, nor alter the fundamental natures of the characters in the novel." He noted that Ms. Lee herself had "added to the novel and its characters" with the publication of "Watchman."

Furthermore, he argued: "Aaron Sorkin is one of the leading writers in America. He would hardly be needed to write the play if the intent was to merely do a transcription of the novel on the stage. Presumably Ms. Lee was well aware that Mr. Sorkin would be bringing his perspective and talent to the play, and that the play would not be identical in all respects to the novel."